A sugar, egg, and vanilla relative in a big family of pies.
Maple sugar pie by LWY, on Flickr
Sugar pies are really more of a class of pies than any particular formulation of a pie. They have a reputation as being pies for impoverished people or lean times, and that’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s not the whole story.
See, pies as a category go back to the Egyptian empire, and by the Middle ages, we had fruit pies that we’d recognize today. Consider, for example, this version around 1390 (reprinted in The Forme of Cury in 1780):
(Click here to expand the original text.)
XXIII. For to make Tartys in Applis.
Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safron wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.
23. To make Apple Tarts.
Take good apples and good spices and figs and raisins and pears and when they are well ground color with saffron well and do set in a crust and do set forth to bake well.
Meanwhile, the process of canning didn’t exist until 1795. That’s at least five hundred winters of dried fruit pies. And I love a good mincemeat, but there’s a line. So sugar pies started to emerge as a category of pies within the larger category of off-season pies.
Along with sugar pie, cream pie, custard pie and molasses pie, cooks would make vinegar pie (a custard pie with vinegar added to make it taste tart like a fruit pie), home pie (using grated potatoes instead of fruit), cracker pie (sometimes called “mock apple pie”), cheese pie (a cheesecake bottom with a meringue top), and dozens of other variations, some of which live on as things like shoofly pie, chess pie and buttermilk pie.
But as I said, there’s more than one way to sugar a pie.
There’s the layered approach suggested by the recipe for maple sugar pie in the November 27, 1884 edition of the Fowler (Indiana) Benton Review (Fowler is in Benton County, in case you’re wondering):
Maple Sugar Pie.–There may be some who do not know how to make a “maple sugar pie.” Try it and see if it isn’t delicious. This is the way we were told it was made: on the under crust put a layer of maple sugar; above this spread butter; then pour on a thickening of flour and water; when this comes from the oven, with a flaky crust covering, it is a very rich dish. —Free Press.
We’ll have to talk more about maple sugar another time, but the short version is that it’s the crystallized result of carefully cooking maple syrup until the water evaporates without scorching the syrup. It was among the things we adopted from native peoples and it remains a favorite in the Northeast U.S. and in Quebec, where maple sugar pies are a tradition.
Other versions had meringue tops, like the one presented in the February 27, 1891, edition of Des Moines, Iowa’s Homestead:
Sugar pie–The yolks of 3 eggs, 1 egg, 1 cup sugar, 1 heaping tablespoonful of flour, butter size of an egg; beat well and add one cup of hot water; boil until thick, stirring all the time. Bake the crust first. After the pie is baked make a meringue of the beaten whites and brown slightly in the oven. —Seventeen.
And there’s the brown sugar versions, like the one from the April 30, 1891 edition of the Friendship (New York) Weekly Register:
Sugar Pie–Two cups of brown sugar, half a cup of butter, half a cup of milk, and three eggs. Mix all together, flavor with nutmeg.Pour in pie-pans lined with crust and bake.
All of these recipes are from the 19th century, when sugar pies were seasonal more than anything. It was really only in the 20th century when they started to take on an association with poverty. Even then, “sugar pie” was a term of endearment. Everybody knows how the Four Tops used it, but my favorite example has to be the woman who got the name in the studio, Sugar Pie DeSanto, who is still alive and rocking.
Here’s Sugar Pie and her friend Etta James. Tell me these two aren’t sweet as anything we’ve seen so far.
From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.
1 cup of sugar
1 Tbsp. flour
1 egg, well beaten
1 cup cold water
1 scant tsp. of vanilla
Boil until thick and pour in crust.